Vivvie Westcott had her eye on the prize. She watched the apricot tart as she waited in the interminable line, and she chewed on her bottom lip and wished it weren't so bloody hot in the bakery. Or that it wasn't so cold outside, so that she was standing in the too-warm bakery in a wool coat and a scarf and a hat, with a heavy sweater underneath. She also wished she hadn't had such a godawful day, so that the calling of the apricot tart was irresistable. She had meant to seriously start losing those ten pounds she was always intending to start losing, but instead she'd had a horrible day and was in such desperate need of an apricot tart.
Which was when the man in front of her-half a head taller than her, sandy brown hair that was damp with melted snow, expensive topcoat-asked, "How many of the apricot tarts have you left?"
"Six," the woman behind the counter answered, sounding bored.
"Lovely. I'll take all six," said the man, and Vivvie reached the end of her rope. Threatened by juvenile delinquents all day, dodging the amorous advances of her no-good supervisor, and the fight with Evan that morning, had all been rather more than she had been equipped to deal with that day.
She leaned forward, tapped the man's shoulder, and, hands on her hips, prepared to do battle. "Excuse me," she drawled, dripping sarcasm, "but d'you suppose you could afford to leave one of those apricot tarts?" So maybe she could have afforded to ask a little more politely. She couldn't be bloody bothered. It had just been one hell of a day.
The man turned toward her in evident surprise. She assumed the surprise resulted from her rudeness, but when he said, "Miss Westcott!" she decided it came from a completely different source.
She gaped up at him, because he did not look the least bit familiar to her. Or maybe he would have looked familiar had she never seen him before. His looks were simply that generic, commonplace. Vivvie was a habitual judger of looks, spent a great deal of her time, indeed, rating the people she came in contact with, and there was nothing memorable about this particular face. Strong, sure-of-themselves features, yes, but that seemed more a result of the air with which he was carrying himself. Wide-set and also wide hazel eyes, under a pair of brown eyebrows, slightly darker than the hair that was impeccably combed into place atop his head, despite the damp nature of it. She had no idea who this man was, but he obviously knew her.
"Of course you may have a tart," he continued. "I'm so sorry...I beg your pardon...Quite unforgivable of me to want them all in the first place. Please leave aside a tart for the lady," he informed the woman behind the counter, who shrugged without interest and took a single tart out of the sack. "Unless you want all six," he remarked, turning back to Vivvie.
Vivvie had been staring at him, trying to figure out who he was, how she knew him, how he knew her. He spoke in a quick, aristocratic clip, and she tried to recognize the voice instead, failing miserably. Now, finding him addressing another remark in her direction, she decided to prend that, of course she knew who he was. She sent him her best smile, the one that Geoff had steeled himself to long ago, the one that irritated Evan, the one that Michael called her unmistakably best feature, and the reason why the men in her life who were so often manipulated by it resented it. "No. Believe me, one is more than enough. It is simply that I've had an awful day, and I thought that-"
"You have no idea who I am," he cut in, flatly.
"That's not at all true," she denied, automatically. "What a silly thing to say."
She thought she caught of flash of dry amusement in those hazel eyes, an expression that at least helped his handsome features look a little more engaging than they had previously been, as he turned to the saleslady and said, "Please. Allow me to pay for the lady's tart as well."
"That's not necessary," she said, quickly, fingers slipping over the coins in the pocket of her coat, measuring by touch the amount she needed.
"Not in the habit of allowing strange men to buy you tarts?" he inquired, sardonically, as he handed over a note.
"Well, but, of course, you're not a strange man."
"We were at Oxford together," he informed her, handing over her tart. "We were in the some college, and we took our degrees in the same year."
Considering she had barely been out of Oxford a year, it was plainly unforgivable for her not to remember who this man was. "I-" she began.
"Please enjoy your tart, Miss Westcott," he told her, executing a strange, old-fashioned, sort-of half-bow. "With my compliments."
Then he turned and left, into the swirl of the snow that had been falling steadily all day.
And then she remembered his name. "Morgan Dunover," she said, out loud, and started after him to tell him she remembered him. But by the time she stepped into the snow, he was no longer visible.
"Ugh," said Rachel St. James, as she stomped snow from her feet in the front foyer of Evan's flat. Vivvie watched the snow pool into puddles on the marble floor. She was going to catch hell for that one, especially considering the mood Evan was already in. "It's a beastly sort of day, isn't it?"
Vivvie liked snow. She didn't remember how much she liked it until she got home and sat on the couch sipping hot chocolate and watching it. She liked the silence. She liked the artificial, unexpected stall in everyday life that it brought with it. She wished she lived somewhere where it happened more often, where people didn't mind it and knew what to do when it came along.
Rachel hadn't expected an answer to her question, so that, as she unwound the muffler from around her neck, she continued talking. "Evan home?"
She probably expected an answer to that question. "No. We quarrelled this morning."
"So what else is new?" Rachel dropped the muffler onto the floor along with her coat. Evan's flat was enormous and well-appointed but the two of them could never seem to get around to putting a coat rack up. This appalled Evan, visitor's coats lying in heaps on the floor. Vivvie thought it was a little charming in a bohemian sort of way. And, as she resented the implication that it was clearly the woman's job to buy coat racks, she never went and bought one, and it was just another thing that didn't get done around the house because they had reached a standoff on the issue. "Pen here yet?"
"No, not yet. She is supposed to be picking up the Thai. They wouldn't deliver in the snow." She did not overlook the fact that her quarrels with Evan were so common that her friends no longer even bothered to ask her about them.
"Fancy that," said Rachel, and, finally done peeling off her winter protection, stepped into the main living area of Evan's flat.
When Evan had first bought the flat, he had spent a ridiculous amount of money knocking down the walls between the myriad small rooms to create one enormous kitchen-living-dining-working area. The only enclosed rooms were the bedroom, the master bath, and the guest bath. Evan adored the floor plan, and it was growing on Vivvie. She simply wished it weren't so dim. No overhead lighting in any area but the kitchen, where she had flipped on the recessed lighting. She had also turned every lamp in the living area on, but the effect was still like intruding on the lair of a bear.
Vivvie sat in the sleek suede couch that faced the walls of windows. A nondescript absence of color, she had called this couch, provoking another fight with Evan, who was plainly in love with the couch. Vivvie had tried to perk it up with two plump, plum-colored cushions. They were not accomplishing much. She pushed aside the paperback she'd been reading.
Then, hearing Rachel's high heels clicking on the hardwood floor in the kitchen area, she turned around on the couch.
Rachel was opening cupboards. "Anything to eat in this place, Viv?"
"The food is coming."
"I'm never going to last that long, darling," announced Rachel, with her typical melodrama. Finding a bag of pretzels, Rachel, satisfied, headed into the living area, kicked off her heels, curled up on the loveseat adjacent to the couch like a cat, said conversationally, "I talked to Maxwell."
"Oh? And what did he have to say for himself?"
Rachel ate a pretzel and made a face. "Does anyone ever go shopping in this household? How old are these pretzels?"
"Honestly, I don't know where those pretzels came from." And they never went shopping. Another impasse. Vivvie was not the sort of woman who cooked, and Evan could cook but insisted that Vivvie ought to be the one doing it. She decided to change the subject back to Maxwell. "So what did he say?"
"Oh." Rachel made yet another extremely eloquent face. "He claims-"she drawled the word so that there was no mistake what she thought of the "claim"-"that Mia is just a friend."
Vivvie actually really liked Maxwell. She thought Mia probably was just a friend. But men usually fell victim to Rachel's overactive imagination. The only men she trusted were the ones she wasn't sleeping with. So Vivvie made a noncommital sound and brushed a piece of lint off the plum cushion.
"I mean," continued Rachel, who was perfectly capable of carrying on a conversatoin by herself, "if Mia were just a friend, would he be spending so much time with her?"
Vivvie went to point out that Mia was Maxwell's editor, but Rachel forged her way onward. "I mean, nobody spends that much time with someone they're not enjoying in flagrante delicto. In flagante delicto," she repeated, looking hard at Vivvie. "Do you catch my drift?"
Vivvie tamped down on her amused smile, went to say that she caught her drift, but Rachel wasn't quite finished. "And I swear to God, he calls her Mia Mia."
Vivvie blinked. "Huh. Does he call you Rachel Rachel?"
Rachel stared at her. "No! You don't get it! Mia Mia. It means my Mia. His Mia. Do you get it?"
"Oh." Vivvie considered. "Well, Rachel, he's playing with words. He's a writer and he's-"
"He could call me Mia Rachel."
"But that's not your name."
"You are not understanding this."
"Rach, Maxwell isn't-" There was a brisk knock on the door, and Vivvie stood up. "We'll put this conversation on hold," she called, over her shoulder, as she walked quickly out to the foyer. She stepped in the puddle of water left behind by Rachel's winter clothing, and hoped it would evaporate by the time Evan came home. As it was, she hopped over the rest of the water and pulled open the door.
"Hullo!" chirped Penelope Elliott, as she stepped over the threshold and handed across the bag of Thai food, damp from the commute. "How are you, darling?"
"I'm fine. I'm lovely-"
"I'm starving!" shouted Rachel from the other room.
Penelope quirked a smile at Vivvie. "Starving, is she?"
"Naturally. Long day at Harrod's."
"Go bring her the food. I'll drop my stuff in the pile." So saying, she dropped her earmuffs on top of Rachel's coat.
Vivvie carried the bag into the kitchen, where Rachel already had three plates waiting, and they partitioned out the pad Thai. Penelope arrived, and they talked for a little while longer about Maxwell and Mia and how Rachel had come to the conclusion that she needed to break up with Maxwell. Penelope and Vivvie exchanged a look. They liked Maxwell. But Rachel was always tossing aside perfectly respectable men. Then Rachel moved on to the fact that she'd found the most fantastic yellow rubber pants at Harrod's that day, and then she took a breath and said, looking at Vivvie and Penelope with frank interest, "So. How were your days?"
Vivvie and Penelope looked at each other. "Shall I start?" asked Penelope. "Day was perfectly normal. Nothing of any interest happened. Crunched the same numbers I always crunch. How about you, Viv?"
Vivvie made a face as she tried to maneuver some stubborn noodles around her fork. "Actually, I had an awful day."
She thought she saw Rachel roll her eyes. "Is this because you fought with Evan?"
"No." Vivvie scowled. "Well, not just because I fought with Evan. Andy-with-the-Hands grows ever more adventurous. I spend all my time just fending him off. I can't get anything done, and then when I do try to get something done, all I do is get threatened by the juvenile delinquents." She took a swallow of wine, said, "And then, to make matters worse, I ran into Morgan Dunover."
"Morgan Dunover?" repeated Penelope, cocking her head. "Name sounds familiar."
"The Earl of Airesdale, right?" said Rachel, taking a gulp of her own wine.
"Yeah, the Earl of Airesdale."
"Interesting," commented Penelope. "Where'd you run into him?"
"At the bakery."
"The bakery?" Rachel wrinkled her nose. "What was he doing at the bakery?"
"Same thing as me. Buying apricot tarts."
Rachel and Penelope both sat up a little straighter. "You had an apricot tart today?" Rachel clarified.
Vivvie tried to spear a piece of chicken. "Yes," she reported, miserably.
"Your fight with Evan must have been particularly bad," realized Rachel.
"I told you. It was just one hell of a day."
"Hmm." Penelope did not inquire into the extent of the argument that morning. She just asked, with interest, taking a bit of the pad Thai she had settled in the hollow created by her Indian-style legs, "So what did Morgan Dunover have to say?"
"That's the thing. He didn't have a chance to say much, because I didn't recognize him."
Penelope looked quizzical. "Didn't recognize him? What's happened?"
"Did he gain lots of weight?" Rachel asked, eagerly. "Oh, my God! Did he dye his hair some outrageous color?"
"No. He looked the same as he always did. That's what's so inexcusable. I still didn't recognize him, and he looks exactly the way he did a year ago."
"Well," remarked Penelope, thoughtfully, "it isn't as if we were actually friends with him."
"Or like he's memorable," added Rachel. "You know I would never have remembered him if he hadn't been an earl."
This was true, Vivvie had to admit. And yet.... "He recognized me right away. Looked right down at me and said, ‘Miss Westcott!'"
"That's flattering, Viv," said Rachel.
"Yeah, that may be. But it made me feel bad. I mean, that I didn't...I didn't even realize how I knew him until after he'd walked out of the bakery. I just feel bad."
Rachel shrugged a little. "I think you feel bad because you fought with Evan. You'll feel better after you make it up."
"What was the fight about?" Penelope inquired.
Vivvie tried to look indifferent. "It was nothing," she said. "It was...you know, typical stuff."
"Yeah, typical stuff-" Rachel cut herself off when the door opened and shut, and Evan walked through the foyer, holding an enormous bouquet of red roses, his usual apology, and sending them all that jaunty, killer grin that never failed to slay all in its path.
"Hullo, girls," he said to Rachel and Penelope. "Hullo, luv," he said to Vivvie, and leaned over and gave her a kiss.
She smiled up at him, those stunning light blue eyes, like the sky on the most perfect day of summer. "Hi," she said. "These for me?"
He sent her that grin again, coupled it with a devastating wink. "For Rachel, of course." He straightened, turned to Rachel and Penelope. "How are you, girls?"
"We're good," said Penelope, standing. "We were just leaving."
"Oh, no." Evan walked over to the kitchen, laid the roses on the counter, opened a cupboard in search of a vase. "Please don't leave on my account. I've calls to make, at any rate." He filled the vase with water, dropped the roses into it, sent them all another wink as he headed toward the bedroom.
"Well," remarked Rachel, as the bedroom door closed. "Seems like the fight's over."
Vivvie suppressed her frown. "Yeah. Seems like."
"I bet the roses make you feel better about the Morgan Dunover incident." Penelope dropped a kiss on the top of Vivvie's head.
"Yeah," said Vivvie, although they really didn't. The one had nothing to do with the other.
"They're beautiful," said Penelope.
"Absolutely gorgous," agreed Rachel.
Vivvie stood, followed them out to the foyer, where they began the process of getting ready to go out in the cold.
"Give me a call tomorrow," said Penelope.
"Especially if I find myself standing in front of an apricot tart, right?" Vivvie smiled.
"Who cares if you're standing in front of an apricot tart?" proclaimed Rachel, loyally. "You don't need to lose any weight at all."
"Right, I know, I know. If I can get out of one of Evan's boring social functions, maybe we can do something this weekend."
"Call us," said Rachel, as the two of them stepped back into the hallway.
Vivvie closed the door behind them, turned and walked wearily to the kitchen, sniffed half-heartedly at the roses. Then she walked into the bedroom. Evan was out of his suit, dressed in a pair of jeans and a sweater. He had the phone in front of him, as well as one of his perpetual legal pads, and he looked up briefly when she came in the room.
"Is it still snowing?" she asked him.
"Tapering off. There are puddles all over the floor in the foyer."
"I know. Rach and Pen. I'll take care of it."
"Have a nice dinner?"
He grunted noncommitally, fell silent.
She persisted. "What did you have for dinner?"
"I don't know. We ordered something in."
She was silent for a second, watched him make notations on his legal pad. "Can I talk to you for a second?"
"Uh-huh," he said, concentrating on the legal pad.
"Could you look up at me for a second?"
"Sure." She waited for him to lift his head, fasten those blue eyes on her. "Everything alright?"
She looked down at him, feeling a little frustrated, trying to figure out where to start. She decided being innocuous would be a good way to go. "The roses are lovely."
"I thought you would appreciate them."
"Evan, I can't change the fact of who my family happens to be. If we are honestly going to quarrel over this-"
"I'm not quarreling over your family, luv. I just don't think it's a good idea to have them traipsing around London, scandalizing people. There are things to think of here. Important things."
"Your career," she guessed, because their fight had traversed this path that morning.
"Yes. Vivvie, luv-"
"I will not lie about my mother, Evan. She may be slightly-"
"Okay," she allowed. "She is a little insane. She's still my mother. I'm sorry if my pedigree doesn't happen to be acceptable, but one would hope you were dating me for other reasons."
Sighing, Evan tossed the legal pad onto the desk, then looked up at her, a little stricken by her words. "Vivvie. You know I'm dating you for more than your pedigree. It's a foolish thing to say." He found her hand, tugged her onto his lap. "I'm merely trying to be practical, hmm?" He nuzzled at her neck. "I don't want you to lie about your mother." His hand brushed along the underside of her breast. "I would never ask you to lie." His hand covered her breast. "I just think it better that she not come to the birthday party, luv. Hmm?" His hand, pure magic, teased at a nipple, and her eyes drifted closed in surrender. "Hmm?" he asked again.
"Evan," she said.
"Can we forget about it for now?"
"What a marvelous idea, Viv," he said.
The symphony was reaching a crashing crescendo when Morgan Dunover said, "I don't feel as if I've made my mark."
Colin Barchester frowned over at his friend, his hands stopped in the air at the point when the comment had shattered his concentration. Morgan was sitting slouched on the loveseat. An uncharacteristic posture for him. An uncharacteristic comment. Maybe it was time for a talk. "Morgan," he said, as he turned off the symphony, "you're twenty-bloody-four years old."
"I didn't mean to interrupt your symphony."
"Then you shouldn't have said anything at all. You're twenty--four years old, and you're a peer. You haven't any right to be depressed."
"I ran into Vivvie Westcott today."
"No. Her name is Vivian."
"For you, Don Quixote, she has always been Dulcinea," announced Colin, dramatically.
"I don't even know what that's supposed to mean."
Colin snorted. "Give it up, Airesdale. You've been in love with Vivvie Westcott from moment one."
"I haven't ever been in love with Vivvie Westcott!" he denied, sounding shocked such a thing would be thought of him.
"I know you were in love with her." Colin collapsed on the couch across from her. "You know how I know you were in love with her? You avoided having any contact with her at all the whole time we were in university."
"That's just a blatant lie."
"Besides, there were a lot of people I avoided contact with. You know how I am. Most people on earth are boring, Vivvie Westcott included. I haven't time."
"Vivvie Westcott, as I recall, was always anything but boring. So," inquired Colin, lazily, "how did she look? Does she still have that luscious figure?"
"I'll have you know," proclaimed Morgan, haughtily, "she's trying to lose some weight."
"I hope you dissuaded her. The last thing mankind needs is for Vivvie Westcott to lose those brilliant hips."
Morgan decided he'd had enough of talking about Vivvie Westcott's hips. Time to cut to the chase. "She had no idea who I was."
Colin actually looked confused by that one. "Come again?"
"You heard me. No idea."
"Well..." Colin considered. "You did go out of your way to avoid her, Morgan."
"I most certainly did not. I already told you. Was I really so unmemorable while we were at university? Tell me the truth."
"You hardly ran with the same crowds as Vivvie Westcott," Colin pointed out.
"True," agreed Morgan. "Vain and useless woman."
"She does have a brain in her head. I heard she was very good."
"I've had strong suspicions about the brain in Vivvie Westcott's head ever since she started showing up at functions on Evan Thorne-Brighton's arm."
"That's right. I forgot she was dating Golden Boy. You mean to tell me she didn't recognize you from functions?"
Morgan looked impatient with the question. "I haven't spoken to her at any functions."
"Good God, have you been avoiding her at functions, too? Why didn't you avoid her today as well?"
"I couldn't," he admitted, reluctantly. "Not that I ever have been avoiding her, but she tapped me right on my shoulder."
"Then she must have at least thought she knew you."
"No," he reported. "She was worried about the apricot tarts."
"The apricot tarts?" Colin repeated, quizzically.
"Yes. My mother's in town, you'll recall. She goes mad for apricot tarts. I stopped off at a bakery after work to buy her some, and I tried to take all of them, and this thoroughly traumatized Vivvie Westcott. I acknowledged her very politely. She had no idea who I was."
"Morgan, I think you're making a lot more of this than a man who wasn't in love with Vivvie Westcott would be making of this."
"Would you stop with the ‘in love?'" Morgan demanded, crossly. "I must say that I am alarmed that I wouldn't be recognized by someone who must have seen me every day for a long amount of time. It makes me feel I am not leaving any mark."
"Who in bloody hell cares if Vivvie Westcott remembers you? That's not the sort of mark you want to make. Unless, of course, you're-"
"Colin," Morgan warned.
"Look, you'll make your mark in other ways. I promise. I, however, will make no marks, because I never get any time to practice, and I'm never going to catch my big break unless I can conduct at least some symphonies."
"I told you I didn't mean to interrupt."
"The girl has you out of your mind. Buck up, Airesdale. Concentrate on your economics, and leave Vivvie to her vain, useless circle."
"She isn't vain and useless," said Morgan, which amused Colin. Morgan was fond of saying anything he pleased about Vivvie Westcott but he wouldn't let anyone else say two words against her.
"Of course not. What did your mother have to say about the tarts?"
"She loved them. They're going to Thorne-Brighton's birthday party."
"My parents," Morgan clarified, without skipping a beat.
"Ah. Are you going?"
"I have been invited."
"But you haven't accepted?"
Morgan shrugged vaguely. "I don't know. I've been swamped with classwork lately."
"Also, you're still trying to avoid Vivvie Westcott."
Morgan scowled in annoyance. "Really, this has nothing whatsoever to do with Vivvie Westcott."
"I need to practice this symphony, Morgan. I truly do."
"I don't know what's stopping you."
Colin gave him a pointed look.
"Oh!" Realization dawned on Morgan. "I'm breaking your concentration. I'm sorry."
"It's okay. I understand that you needed to talk about Vivvie Westcott."
Morgan paused in the process of leaving the room. "I didn't need to talk about Vivvie Westcott."
The only reply he got was the blasting resumption of the symphony.
No more apricot tarts, Vivvie decided, firmly, as she brushed her hands down the curve of her hips and frowned at her reflection in the mirror. The dress was lovely, just made for a woman who didn't have the most enormous hips in history.
The designer, Paula Genovese, babbled at her in Italian, hands clasped together.
"I know," Vivvie reported, miserably. "I know I promised to lose some weight, but-"
"Lose some weight?" Paula shook her head in horror. "No, no! You are perfect! The dress is perfect on you!"
Vivvie looked skeptically from Paula to the mirror. Since she had begun stepping out with Evan six months earlier, designers had been knocking down her door to dress her, the newest paramour of a famously womanizing MP and hopeful PM. She found that she enjoyed the process of dressing to impress, had always enjoyed it, but still wished her figure was a little more lithe and slender. "If you say-"
"Darling!" Evan's voice rang out clearly. "We are going to be late! One cannot be late to one's own-"
"Just a moment!" she called back, as Paula quickly finished tying the corset laces on the back of the dress, tugging firmly.
Vivvie felt the air whoosh out of her lungs, took a careful, delicate breath, and realized she wouldn't be able to eat for the rest of the evening. Well, she thought. Talk about an instant diet.